Archive for the ‘veterinary medicine’ category

Twenty years ago today…

December 6, 2009

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I was a first-year student in a Quebec university. Early in the evening of December 6, 1989, I had a class in the 7 to 10 pm slot, and that was where I must have heard about the Polytechnique massacre. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard, maybe on the radio, where details were emerging in snippets of panic and disbelief. A man shot a bunch of students, then himself, in a classroom? This was years before classrooms were to become familiar but still outrageous sites of bullets and blood, and the intense shock of the Polytechnique aftermath drove my spirit into hiding, just as I suspect it did for other women students of my age. Anglophone that I was, it took me several days to even piece together that the École Polytechnique was the engineering faculty of the Université de Montréal.

When Polytechnique the movie was released in early 2009, I made a point to see it through in a movie theatre and address the residues of that shock. There were four of us sitting in the seats when it started, and only my friend and I were left by the time it was over. Harrowing, shot in black and white, and not overly graphic, Polytechnique is a sober film that deals with composite characters and documented facts. I’m glad someone had the courage to make it, if only to serve as an archival piece about what happened on December 6, 1989.

The stress, styrofoam coffee cups, typical 80s music and informal group study sessions of university exam periods felt very familiar; there were no cellphones, iPods, laptops, or PowerPoint presentations – just textbooks, course notes and acetates shown on overhead projectors. There may have been a few of those funny convex mirrors posted at blind corners, just so students could avoid head-on collisions. The photocopy machines were always busy. Knowing that this scene would soon be interrupted by multiple shooting deaths was almost unbearable.

One of the most heartbreaking moments was when one girl from the classroom group sequestered by the murderer protested his labelling them as feminists. She shouted “we are not feminists, we’re just living a normal life!” And that was when he sprayed the group with a hail of bullets, and they all fell. But it was true, they’re weren’t really feminists. Even young women engineering students of the time, a very small minority among the young men, didn’t consider themselves feminists, or trailblazers of any kind. The trail had been blazed already, you’d have been crazy to pretend you were a pioneer of women’s rights by entering any professional degree program in 1989. Anyways, we had to study hard; there was no time to learn about feminist history or gender theory. Apparently we didn’t even have time for the basics back then, we were in such a rush to fend off the competition and earn a cherished spot in a professional program or a plum internship – and unless blatant discrimination was being applied, the most serious competition was from the perfectionist drive of the other women students.

I didn’t have the same excuse, however. In the fall of 1989, I was studying literature; this was before I reoriented my study program to focus on sciences, with the goal of studying veterinary or human medicine. And in early December 1989 I was reading The Diviners, a classic novel in Canadian literature that carries a good description of what life was like for women before women’s rights were part of the landscape. One day in class we were discussing the novel, which intrigued me, but I didn’t really know what to make of it, the constant setbacks and impossibly contentious roads chosen by Morag were incomprehensible to me. My sole comment on the novel in class: “Well, she doesn’t seem very happy, does she?” I offered that up with a mix of contempt for this woman who couldn’t find her way in life, who had difficult relationships with the people closest to her, and self-satisfaction because I wasn’t a feminist, and thus rejected struggle and wilfull unhappiness.

After the class, Charles, a senior student, came straight over to where I was sitting. From his severely receded hairline and grayish temples it was obvious that Charles was older than most of us; his contributions to class discussions put the rest of ours to shame because he had the authority of personal experience to back up his opinions. He looked me square in the eyes and said “you don’t know much about the history of women, do you?” I’m not sure what I said in reply to that, perhaps I didn’t say anything at all and just looked at him with my best deer-in-the-headlights face. He gave me a very brief but pointed description of what life had been like for women in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution, that Canadian women had been severely limited in their personal and professional choices until something like the mid-1970s, and ended his speech by suggesting that I open my eyes and ears for the stories I wouldn’t hear from my contemporaries.

I was mildly insulted, but his words worked on me, and in the years ahead, I did pay attention to history, to what older women said when they talked about about their lives, and to the experiences of older generations. I learned about how women in Quebec had been valued for their ability to bear vast numbers of children, and that as soon as they were no longer obliged to do so, they threw off the yoke of the Church of Perpetual Childbearing and mobilised an entire society to sweeping changes – changes that were enacted while I was a child and which my generation accepted as our birthright by the time we entered university. Did we imagine that if things hadn’t always been that easy, they couldn’t have been all that different?

Last year during a symposium at the Ontario Veterinary College on women in veterinary medicine, I learned that in 1972, Title IX legislation in the United States led to a massive inpouring of women students in veterinary medicine and other professional programs. It was such a vast and sweeping change that from one year to the next somewhere in the mid-1970s, there were more graduating women veterinarians in a single year than there had been in all the years taken together since veterinary programs were first created in the late 19th century. I don’t know if Canada had to enact similar legislation, but the same sweeping changes occurred here and in other countries on the heels of that major piece of feminist-inspired legislation.

By the time I entered vet college in 1995, 75% of my classmates were girls, in a profession that had once seen women excluded on the basis that we were too delicate and sensitive to study anatomy and perform many of the tasks vets had to perform. I still have a hard time imagining which ones, because I’ve done most of them, a few times with men standing helpless at my side. I’ve seen men turn a whiter shade of pale at the sight of blood and smell of pus; sights and smells that to me signal nothing more than a problem to solve.

Animal medicine has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as I’ve seen how often we use the bodies of animals as means to our own ends, with perfect callousness – as a kind of mirror to the way women were treated for so long. On the other hand, I wake up most days excited about the knowledge and skills I was allowed to learn, and couldn’t imagine my life without them.

For me, that’s been the experience of living a normal life. Too many women in different times and places have been prevented from living anything I’d consider resembling a normal life, and 14 women engineering students in 1989 were prevented from living their lives at all. It’s not ideological to observe that it was due to a young man’s anger and frustration at feminism (plus the easy availability of an automatic weapon) that women were slaughtered on December 6, 1989. It’s not the fault of feminist “ideology” that other women have pointed out that violence against women is almost uniquely carried out by angry and frustrated men; it’s not ideological to draw incredibly obvious parallels between December 6 and violence against women in homes and around the world.

Sometimes it just takes several years of personal and collective experience, while paying attention to history, to accept these hard facts.

As for myself, I finally learned to credit feminism with allowing me to live a normal life. And yes, I am a feminist, for as long as it will take.

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The law of diminishing returns

April 20, 2009

Last week I got together with a childhood friend to catch up on each other’s lives. Inevitably, as we always do, we compared our childhood memories from the several years we spent together in competitive gymnastics, back in the days when we could be found in the gym up to five times a week for around 18-25 hours of practice. My friend, who was always much more supple than I could ever hope to be, is now a fantastic yoga instructor and massage therapist. Her years in gymnastics have given her some valuable insight into the different kinds of pain the body should and shouldn’t endure, and the well-being that liberty and exploration of movement can lend to the mind and soul.

We laughed, sometimes ruefully, about our experiences with coaches who often blurred the line between fostering potential and pushing too hard. Of our series of coaches over the years, many were from Germany or Eastern Europe, and while they definitely knew gymnastics, they were a special kind of strict. As girls, we were all naturally athletic, but we also self-selected for gymnastics on the basis of our slight build and well-rounded physical abilities – a combination of flexibility, strength and agility. We had another feature that helped weed out certain otherwise talented kids: we could tune out our sense of self-preservation in order to respect authority and obey commands. Attuned observers would’ve been struck by our demonstration of high energy and submissiveness.

After a year or so of training in the basics, we were rudely informed that our coaches’ grandmothers could do better splits than we could, so from then on we would spend painful minutes every day in the splits with either the front or back leg raised several inches above the floor. The “oversplits” they called it – whoever could have invented that? Also, a simple backbend wasn’t enough – it was more aesthetically pleasing (or possibly freakish, if impressive) to push it to the brink, nearly popping your shoulders out of joint as you forced your upper back into an impossible arch. Well – impossible for me, that is, as I soon became known as the one who needed extra work in the flexibility department.


The day after you discovered the joy of completing a complete somersault high and fast through the air and landing nicely on your feet again, you found out that to be really competitive, you had to do a double, or add a twist or three – eventually both. It seemed like no matter how much we were willing to do, there was always somebody, somewhere (usually in the Soviet Union or Romania) who could do more, and do it better, and theirs became the new standard. Naturally, that did not come without some kind of cost, and once in a while, the cost was enormous, exposing not only the fragility of our flesh, bones and nerves, but also the desperate folly of pushing a good thing much too far.

Elena Mukhina came to symbolise just exactly how things could be pushed too far. She was a Soviet gymnast, a rising star in the 1970s and poised to unseat Nadia Comaneci as the world’s greatest gymnast in 1980. However, it wasn’t to be. A combination of overtraining, injury, callous and abusive coaching that characterised the Soviet sports system, and a very risky tumbling move rendered Elena a quadriplegic two weeks before the start of the Moscow Olympics. Elena’s injury stayed in my mind for years, and I was sad all over again to learn of her death in 2006, at the age of 46.

A few years after Elena’s injury, I read a memorable article in International Gymnast magazine. It was an unusually wise and thoughtful piece called “The Law of Diminishing Returns”. It affected me particularly because I was struggling with a growing body and assorted injuries and chronic pains in all of my joints. The article was a reflection on how the ever-increasing demands of training could produce dramatically positive results over a period of time, but from a certain point onward, the more pressure and training a gymnast had to bear would not produce better results in competition, in fact, they would often deteriorate. Pushing training beyond that point would only continue to diminish the results – either due to injury, fatigue or loss of competitive drive.

Eventually I decided to quit gymnastics, just as puberty was setting in – like most gymnasts I at least had the benefit of late puberty. I finally acknowledged that I’d been lucky to not have ended up like Mukhina that time I landed on my head a few months earlier; also, what I’d assumed was a pulled muscle in my back was actually a broken spinal process from overuse, and if I kept training, it would never heal enough to stop causing pain. Moves I had been able to do easily only a year before cost me intense effort and pain; even rising from the floor and walking was painful.

Unlike my childhood friend who started doing yoga in her 20s, I didn’t discover the healing benefits of yoga until a few years ago, after she gave me a private lesson that revealed what I’d been missing.

On the other hand, my work in veterinary medicine in the years between had opened up a new and very different world, but one in which I sensed that the law of diminishing returns had already been at work for a long time. What I observed was even more devastating – this time however, without effects I could measure directly in terms of my own pain and well-being.

Bovine medicine, specialising in dairy cows, was my original focus in veterinary medicine. Dairy cows are a remarkable species, and in the words of an old vet: “no other species is even close to them in what they can do”. There was something about their concentrated docility, massive warm bodies, and vital importance to the human food chain that enticed me to go into bovine practice. At the same time, I always found them to be not quite all there – it’s as if they have encased their feelings and reactions into a small recess of themselves, and with that safely bottled up they can face the work they have to do, the elite level performances of milk production every single day, and the illness and injury they have to endure as part of the bargain. Much like many of the top gymnasts I knew, they endure pain without complaint, and show their fear or pain only through “balking” rather than outright dissent or aggression. Chronic lameness, mastitis, metabolic disease and digestive ailments are the lot of the dairy cow, and this is ever more the case with the highest producers, who are also called upon to provide fertilised ova, through a a hormone-soaked process called “superovulation”, so that even more high-producing cows can result. Increasingly, dairy cow farming results in reduced longevity in individuals and herds – many cows are used up and their skinny carcasses sent to make ground beef after only a year or two of lactation (it takes two years of growth and pregnancy before they can start lactating).

I have come to believe that our relationship with these animals has been badly compromised over the past decades – the demand for increased production can be traced to the post-war years, and for decades veterinary medicine and dairy science have combined to achieve the amazing technical accomplishment of the high-producing Holstein cow. But even more than with top athletes, who can choose to retire or scale down their training and go on to something else, the price is too high. There could have been another way. Medicine and science could have, and still can be used in a gentler, wiser manner. It will take adjustment, and recalibration of goals and methods, but I think it’s still time to save our bond with dairy cows and bring them back from the brink. Yes, it’s an accomplishment to breed cows that can produce prodigious amounts of milk – but how many carcasses of cows spent before their time result every day from this way of doing things? It makes little economic sense, and even more importantly – it is desperately inhumane.

Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I feel that the taste and enjoyment of milk and other dairy products has been diminished compared to what I have tasted in more artisanal productions; I still eat them, but they take a lot of dressing up and doctoring to give them a semblance of taste. The blandness of milk, even whole milk, is pretty obvious. Frankly, I’d rather swallow a calcium and vitamin D pill with a glass of water.

Much like gymnastics, where I did experience joy, pride of accomplishment and positive effects in my body in spite of my injuries, I’m left wondering who or what the excessive pushing, the demand for greater performance is really for, in the end. In dairy medicine, as in many other spheres, we can still heed the law of diminishing returns – a biological law and an existential law – and use our science, including our experience with it, to figure out what we could do instead.

Addendum: I forgot to add this amazing interview with gymnast Elena Mukhina, “Grown Up Games”, translated from Russian. The interview was conducted in 1998 and published in Ogonyok Magazine. It is amazing and heart-breaking.

Vegetarian vs. veterinarian

March 31, 2009

Every so often at suppertime, my 7-year-old breaks into gales of laughter when he sees me eat a few bites of meat. “Mum, you’re a veterinarian, you can’t eat meat! – I’m going to tell your boss on you!!” His 11-year-old brother rolls his eyes and tries to explain for the umpteenth time the difference between veterinarian and vegetarian. But for Z, it’s a running joke – I’m pretty sure he knows the difference – the words are too similar and the idea that an animal doctor would eat her patients is a crazy kind of funny.

The fact is, I’ve never craved the taste of meat. I prepare it, cook it, serve it, and eat it more out of cultural habit, convenience and concern for getting enough protein, B12 vitamins and iron in the diet, rather than zeal for its taste and texture. Last summer I put a name to my approach to eating meat, with the word flexitarian. Basically, there is no maximum amount of meat allowed for a flexitarian, which is handy. I came across this concept in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Pollan’s writing on food has been influential for me, from The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – not because I felt he exposes information that I know nothing about; quite the contrary. It is wonderful to read someone like Pollan, an American with the travel opportunities, journalistic skills and funds to flesh out exactly what I already know about the trends and changes I’ve observed since my early days in grocery-store foraging in the late 1980s and through my nitty-gritty experience on the working end of North American agriculture. I’m gratified that he’s noticed all the things I’ve seen and thought about over the years.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s finally time for me to ramp up my flexitarianism, and shift into a completely vegetarian diet. For the past nine or so years, I’ve only eaten local meat, provided by a neighbour who took over the small cow-calf operation that I ran with pain and misery for the first few years, or else from the sheep and beef farmer down the road, who also produces chicken, turkey and various flavours of sausage. I haven’t eaten pork in years – I’m angry at the way the pork industry has polluted wide swaths of southern Quebec, and its up-and-down globalized cycles have ruined too many farmers. I came out of my visit to a pork operation in my first year of veterinary medicine thinking that there is nothing ethical or healthy about eating pigs, in any time or place. I’m with Moses on that one.

Right now, my freezer contains a one-pound bag of ground beef, a single turkey thigh, and some fish from last summer’s catch. I didn’t ration the meat at all during the winter, in fact I was relentlessly emptying the freezer and cooking all kinds of stews and meat dishes in anticipation of reaching the End of Meat. For the past few weeks, noting the coming penury, I’ve been buying and preparing cans of different bean varieties, some whole barley, lentils, falafel mix, and a package of tofu, which I breaded and baked (not bad, but could be better).

I have no idea if a steer will be slaughtered in the coming days or weeks; that would surprise me because this is the wrong time of year. Any young steer that was born too late in the 2008 season for slaughter in the fall would be too slim after a winter in the barn, and I’d like to think he’s looking forward to a summer in the fields. I certainly don’t want to deny him that pleasure after a long, dark winter in cramped conditions. Buy meat from the grocery? Ha, no. When you’ve had meat from the farm for so many years, grocery meat is not an option anymore – especially not chicken.

If it were just up to me, I’d make the shift relatively easily. I’d go by trial and error, cook up spicy and flavorful dishes with all kinds of vegetables, legumes, tofu, seitan and other items I’ve never even tasted before. But my main hurdle is the kids. Even at the best of times they don’t think much of my cooking (they still treasure fond memories of the food at their daycare babysitter’s, a real professional when it comes to making nutritious kid-friendly food). Anything too exotic, sticky, limp, fishy, colourful, chewy, spicy, or overly bland is automatically suspect. And since they’ve become a part of my life, I haven’t thought about food and cooking in the same way. For starters, I don’t think about what I would want or like to eat, instead I think about What They Will Eat Today; it’s a mindset I can’t shake, a fact of life that defines the way I move through the day, even when I try to pour myself fully into something else altogether, like work. When I buy fresh fruits or vegetables, as I do a few times a week, it’s not so much to eat them myself, it’s to make sure they have enough for their snacks and lunches at school and to ward off any searching for easy, junky food and candy, which they manage to eat enough of anyways. Their health is my quiet obsession: I think about the bodies they are growing into and the young adults they will be in a few years, and when I look at the young men in the world out there, I am frankly worried. What I see are too many dough-boys: large shapeless faces and guts that overhang trousers, oversized clothes and over-taxed joints. Guys in their early 20s! Obviously I’m getting old, because the young men I remember from 20 years ago didn’t look like that, or if they did, they were the exception. And when I look at old pictures of my dad’s contemporaries, men circa 1940 – they were all wiry and scrawny, nearly to the last man. OK – they were eating British army rations at the time, which were notoriously bad, but to me they look healthy and muscular, in spite of their small size. Kind of like the vegans and vegetarians of today – those people out there whose faces have definite shape and contour, and who have the kind of leanness and vitality you don’t see as often in young people anymore, unless you’re looking at the ones running in the Olympic triathlon.

Oh dear, it looks like the “ethics” of not eating meat is overshadowed by my concern for human health. I can’t help it – that’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way I was trained as a farm animal veterinarian. One of my professors in bovine medicine and surgery proudly proclaimed, every chance he got, that he became a farm animal veterinarian “to feed the world”. After the second time my eyes would automatically roll, but the message stuck. Milk, eggs and meat: the foundations of industrial civilisation, and that’s what you are working for. Your job is to make sure they are always available, as cheaply and as abundantly as possible, in spite of what that might do to the animals who provide, in spite of how we continually betray the ancient unwritten and non-verbal contract of domestication. If I had the chance to respond now, I’d say that we’ve fed this part of the world too much, and not nearly well enough.

It’s just possible that this veterinarian has come to the end of meat. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but I have a feeling there’s a whole world of food out there that I know very little about…

Veterinarians and the seal hunt

March 23, 2009

Here in southern Quebec, it’s maple syrup season. This year, the elements are in our favour: the nights are cold, and the days are (slightly) warm and sunny, which makes for perfect sugaring-off weather. There’s not too much snow left on the ground to hinder sap collection, and it hasn’t rained too much to make for a soggy and dismal harvest – but rain is forecast for next week. My son collected a large bucket of sugar water from one of our maples, and we’ve decided to use it as a beverage rather than boil it down to 1/40th of its volume to make syrup.

Maple syrup collection is a pleasant spring tradition, albeit dependent on good weather conditions.

A more nasty spring tradition in parts of eastern Quebec and Atlantic Canada is the annual (baby) harp seal slaughter, which started today. I usually try to ignore the slaughter as just another one of those horrible things we do to animals that I can’t do much to counter, except to avoid purchasing items made of seal fur – though I’d have to go far out of my way to Europe to get them.

I put “baby” in parentheses, because this seems to be an important point for some people. Yes, it has been illegal since 1987 to hunt baby whitecoats (blanchons), the very sweetest of the baby seals, the ones who are as pure as the driven snow. These babies cannot be slaughtered, and I am confident that there are enough observers out there to ensure that won’t happen. However, they are fair game as soon as they lose the pure whiteness of their coat, which happens at around 13 days old – that is still “baby” in my books. At that point, they are still spending the vast majority of their time resting on the ice floes. Their furry coats do not give them the same watertightness that adult seals have. So essentially, the slaughter goes on as before; the distinction between a baby seal 10 days old and one who is 15 days old appears to me to be a political, or immaterial, distinction.

Seal hunter with hakapik

Seal hunter with hakapik


What has arisen in recent years to re-focus my attention on the seal hunt is that veterinarians have decided that this is a field of human activity that requires their unique expertise with animals (and I’d like to thank the Dolittler veterinary blog for reminding me). The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has taken an official position on the issue, and some Atlantic College of Veterinary Medicine veterinarians have recently been holding seminars to teach at least one-fourth of the seal hunters the proper techniques of bludgeoning and verifying death: I have not attended a seminar, but I have no trouble imagining the content. Anatomy, including particularities of the thinner skull of the young seal, the physiopathology of bludgeoning versus shooting or drowning, and the necessity of ensuring that death comes as quickly and “humanely” as possible.

The focus on “humanely” is unavoidable – it comes up in the CVMA position paper a few times to indicate that veterinarians are concerned that this mass slaughter be done correctly, “selon les règles de l’art” and therefore as neatly and swiftly as possible. In other words, just like Temple Grandin advocates in the seminars she conducts on humane slaughter of livestock. Temple Grandin is not a veterinarian, but she has had a lot of influence among veterinarians who work with livestock, in feedlots and in slaughterhouses. If slaughter is done with anatomical precision, and as rapidly as possible, then our righteousness : guilt ratio will go up – that is the ultimate desired result, at least as I see it. We have to kill these animals, so we might as well do right by them – that is the shorter Grandin.

I have a lot of respect for Grandin. She has taken the time to go where few of us wish to venture, she has pulled apart the different mechanisms of animal slaughter and studied them separately in their discrete parts, and re-designed it in a way that makes practical, “humane” sense. If animals are going to die for our consumption, why should we make it any more painful or protracted than it needs to be, especially when we have the science and technology that help us to know and to do better?

The involvement of veterinarians in assisting and guardedly approving wildlife slaughter highlights the cultural division that is becoming more and more pronounced within veterinary ranks. It is becoming difficult to believe that the same schools and nearly the same curriculum eventually produce high-tech surgical healers, physical rehabilitation specialists, and oncologists – as well as abattoir inspectors and researchers who give seminars on proper bludgeoning techniques. What can these professionals possibly have in common?

The CVMA walks the tightrope connecting these two approaches to animal life, as it carefully crafts a position on the seal hunt that will appear perfectly practical and neutral. “The CVMA accepts the hunting of seals only if carried out in a humane and sustainable manner.”

I am not a member of the CVMA (membership is optional, as it is not a professional licensing board), but if I were, I would definitely question my support for the association, given their position on this issue. There are many grounds for 21st century veterinarians to oppose slaughter, particularly slaughter of wildlife. I did not become a veterinarian to figure out better ways to kill animals; I enrolled in vet school because I wanted to learn better ways to heal, save and protect animal life; and hopefully, to gain a better level of empathy and understanding for all life in the process. The seal hunt is an annual bloodfest, no matter how it is “done” – much like 18th century whaling used to be. I’m rather glad there were no veterinarians around back then to assist whalers in how and where to direct the harpoons.

Temple Grandin, feeling like an animal

February 11, 2009

Temple Grandin is back in the news, with a new book, Animals Make us Human (the sequel to Animals in Translation). A university animal science professor and consultant and designer of livestock handling facilities, Grandin is also the subject of an upcoming HBO semi-biographical film with Claire Danes.

I’ve been thinking about Grandin on and off ever since I was in veterinary school in the mid-1990s, when she was starting to gain recognition for her approach to fixing problems in cattle handling facilities such as feedlots.

In 1998, I was invited to be on a committee to rank candidates for a major U.S. animal welfare award. Of the list of candidates with impressive resumés in animal welfare work, she was the only one I had heard of; the one who had made the most notable impression on veterinary education and practice. I ranked her as my first choice, based on her resumé and what I had learned about her when I was a vet student headed for large animal practice. In one of my classes, we briefly studied some corral designs by this professor from Colorado State University, designs which had rapidly replaced the old models in the space of a few short years. I had presumed Temple was a man’s name, and only found out later that not only was Grandin a woman, but she was autistic, and that she was all about a cinemascope attention and memory for sensory details plus fundamental knowledge about cattle instincts. Her novel designs for corrals and squeeze chutes meant that handling for vaccinations and other procedures went more smoothly for everyone involved.

I learned in bits and pieces that she saw the world through animals’ eyes, and translated their experience so that “neurotypical” people such as myself (I presume that’s what I am) could understand their reactions and motivations a bit better. In the end, she was awarded the prize from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (that’s R$ for Rockefeller, and Dodge, for the car company), along with Diane Halverson.

In 1997, I had a summer job as an assistant researcher in the bovine medicine department, and one of our projects was to study a new Big Pharma cattle dewormer. On the first day of the project, we had to put a group of jumpy dairy heifers through a corral with a squeeze chute at the end to identify each one with an ear tag, take individual manure samples, and collect a small vial of blood from the tail vein. Once we were done, we opened the squeeze chute and sent each tagged heifer into one of three study groups. Halfway through, in spite of our improvised Grandin-style corral, the remaining heifers decided as a group that they wouldn’t be cooperating with us anymore – one of the farm hands was drunk and behaving unpredictably, periodically yelling abuse and jumping at them to chase them out of the chute. About fifteen heifers backed away and galloped off to the opposite end of the field, some 500 metres away. Rounding them up looked impossible, at the very least it looked like one of those time and energy-consuming activities that I dread. Some of us wanted to call it a day, but the head researcher reminded us we’d have to start all over again at the beginning if we put it off.

Inspired by Grandin, I remembered my pre-veterinary experiences with cattle, back when I was delighted by their friendly curiosity. If you walk into a field of cattle, they won’t take their eyes off you for minutes on end, and if they are docile like dairy cattle, they’re likely to come right up and lick your boots and clothes. I walked out towards them till I was about 10 metres away from the boldest ones, and showed them a long rake I’d brought with me. Then, I turned around and dragged it behind me, hoping they would follow. I started out slow at the beginning and then faster so they’d have to pick up the pace. The long stick dragging along the ground was intriguing enough for the more dominant heifers, and the rest of the herd followed. Nobody wanted to be left behind in the field all alone.

I always thought this mix of curiosity, skittishness and attention to random detail was something more scientists and vets should think about, just as Grandin pays scientific attention to sensory details and behaviours. It would add some interest to the boring data collection we always seemed to be doing, and would contribute to animal well-being.

But when I left research and started practicing bovine medicine, the more I paid attention to behaviour, reactions, sensations and emotions of cattle, the less I was able to concentrate on doing my job. Not the jobs where I was caring or healing, relieving pain, replacing a prolapsed uterus or helping an exhausted cow during a calving – those were invigorating and rewarding; it was the job of fitting in and playing my role in the industrial-agricultural system – treating the intractable metabolic diseases and lameness that result in short lifespans and which are caused by the kind of nutrition and genetics that make cows produce incredible amounts of milk; endless infections of the mammary glands from bacterial resistance, crowding, stress, little or no time outdoors, milking machines, etc.; and most important of all, ensuring that estrus and pregnancies are properly detected and monitored so that no time is wasted between a calving and a new gestation, to keep the milk flowing. The objective of my new job as a farm vet was increasingly oriented toward figuring out ways of making dairies more efficient and profitable, and culling the non-profitable animals. It’s a system that not only wears down the animals, but it wears down everyone who’s involved with it, including me, and it wore me down quicker than most. I wasn’t in it long enough to even glimpse the rewards, but I always suspected they were driven by the evil twins of debt and profit.

As for Grandin, I am sure that she is driven by a desire to do what is right by animals. She believes it is ethical to use animals for food, and she wants it to be done right so that animals can have a decent life and a painless death. I think that’s a good and sensible approach, but I can’t help noticing that her designs and push for ethics are co-opted by a cattle industry that wants things working more smoothly for its own ends (debt and profit again), not for the animals. Still, I suppose that what she does “has to be better than simply wishing [the system] didn’t exist in the first place.”

Still. In her new book Grandin claims that it’s hard for “normal” people to think like animals, because we think in words, while the animal world is all sensory-based, all the time. Her own lifetime spent overcoming a purely sensory-based world as an autistic human supposedly places her in the unique position of identifying with and empathising with animals, and encouraging everyone else to tune into sensory experience to think more like animals.

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not convinced that thinking in words is really all that easy for humans. Most people struggle to find the right words to communicate their feelings and experience, whether in speech or in writing, and a lot of the time we don’t even come close, especially if we count the part of our lives we spend as babies and small children. And yet words have been used skilfully in so many books to communicate animals’ experience, by recording observations and sometimes even imagining what they might be thinking. One of the best examples of this is Black Beauty, but there are so many others. Some of my greatest revelations about animal and human experience have come to me through reading novels; then I’ve returned to animals and humans with a different attitude that has made me more empathic and observant. In fact, my own sensory experiences haven’t always made me more empathic, sometimes they’ve even had the opposite effect.

But whether our empathy comes from sights, sounds or words, there is still the fact that we have this food-producing system that’s built on the backs of suffering animals, a system that grinds them down for as long they have something to give, after which we dispose of them callously – when it’s not with outright cruelty.

Grandin worries that there are less people all the time who are willing to go out into the field to work with cattle, to observe, to participate and to make changes that will give them decent lives. I see the same thing she does, but from the other side of the fence. I’ve crossed that field already, and I don’t wish to go back, because I’ve seen that the role of workers such as veterinarians and scientists is to find ways of making things work more smoothly, more profitably; animal well-being is only a collateral benefit. Problem is, the more we acknowledge that animals share our emotions, sensations and perceptions, the more we shy away from engaging with them in the system we’ve built.

The upshot is that the ones who stay to work with it are those who don’t think about these things, or if they do, they have no other viable choices to make about their working lives. I don’t mean to say that there is no one left who engages empathically with animals; certainly there are, but as long as they are playing the role of facilitators of an industrialised system, I’m not sure what to think about their efforts to improve animal welfare. Vet students know this; every year it’s harder to get students to choose farm animal medicine.

Not that I ever got away from it myself: as long as I drink milk, and eat butter, cheese and meat, or wear leather, I’m still participating in a system that makes me shrink inside.

Here’s Temple:

My own private guinea pig

February 9, 2009

I’m still trying to get a hang of this blog thing; if I were quicker and wrote shorter entries, stuff that just flies off the brain and into the computer and goes right to the point, I’d be better at this.

OK, I’ve been busy with paid work, for which I’m duly grateful, and with keeping the house warm as it’s been hovering around -20 for the past several days – no, make that weeks.

On one of those day back in January, I went out to the barn to check on the guineas, rabbits, chickens and barn kitties, I noticed that Pigma, our chief guinea pig, was looking a little low. That’s a subjective call, because guinea pigs aren’t very expressive creatures. The range of symptoms they might show for severe illness is: “no thank-you, I won’t be having any parsley today”; and the next thing you know they’re pining for the pampas. To be honest, my son had asked me to take a look at him because he was vaguely concerned, so I can’t say I was being particularly observant.

img_0017 Pigma is the grey fellow on the right.

I had Pigma neutered by one of my colleagues back in November, mainly because the novelty of guinea babies had worn off. After something like 7 litters with anywhere between 2 and 6 babies each time, we’d seen enough. Guinea fertility is even more spectacular than rabbits, especially as their mating is that much more discreet. I never saw a single mating, but I saw the results too many times to count. Part of this was my fault: in spite of some excellent and very detailed information available on the internet, my sexing rate for young guineas before the age of two months is still only about 50%, whereas Pigma’s stands at a perfect 100%. So the young females I mistook for males ended up having litters; and a young male guinea I mistakenly placed with our two females was also remarkably precocious. We’ve also had a few logistical accidents, like last summer when the dividing wall in the temporary cage was breached, from both sides. A local pet shop has been happy to take in our accidents; since I wasn’t doing this for money, I was just happy that someone else wanted them.

I didn’t neuter Pigma myself since I don’t normally do surgery, and my colleague had carefully researched the procedure and was willing to take it on. We discussed the special risks of anaesthesia for guineas, as well as the increased risk of infection compared to other species we’re more familiar with. Pigma pulled through the very short surgery very well, and I kept him in the house for a couple of weeks before sending him out to more space with the three females in a protected space in the barn. He was doing well, or so I thought, based on his healthy appetite. But when I picked him up that day back in early January, there was a very large, firm mass hanging off his lower belly.

I brought him back inside, and observed him for a day or so – his appetite was excellent as usual, though his weight was down to 1.5 pounds from a high of 3 just before surgery. I hoped the mass wasn’t a hernia (i.e. the holes left from the castration not healing properly leaving the abdominal contents to spill out and sit there just under the skin). That would mean another surgery, more delicate this time, and the mass was so big it looked disastrous for a hernia. His ears were warmer than normal, and his eyes a bit teary, so an abscess was also a distinct possibility. Proof of that was easily obtained by siphoning out some liquid with a needle and syringe – the mass was a clementine orange-sized ball of pus.

Normally, abscesses are an extremely gratifying condition to treat, I see them regularly at the clinic in cats who don’t like other cats (bite wounds leading to abscess): you lance the mass with a small scalpel, empty it out to the last drop of evil-smelling liquid while everyone around you goes pale or leaves the room, then flush with saline and disinfect and prescribe antibiotics and a painkiller, either orally or by injection. The antibiotics in the penicillin family are usually the best because they have an excellent penetration of pus-filled capsules and they kill bacteria rather than simply prevent their spreading.

The problem with guinea pigs is that their digestive tracts are an Amazonian ecosystem of sensitive but highly specialised bacterial and protozoal life. When you give them penicillin-type antibiotics, you’re burning down the rainforest; the remedy can do more damage than the infection you’re trying to eliminate, and your guinea pig may die from malnutrition.

Armed with this knowledge – and trying not to think about how that knowledge was obtained – I gave Pigma a 10-day course of antibiotic treatment with Baytril, a common veterinary antibiotic that has been generally OKed for use in guineas and various other small mammals. Apparently, Baytril causes hallucinations in humans, which is why we don’t use it on ourselves; but I wasn’t game enough to sample any more than a few drops. The taste was not good, and apparently not improved when mixed with blueberry jam, carrot juice or any other vegetable. Pigma put up a typical guinea pig protest to the treatment, a short, ineffectual struggle followed by passive resistance and a few disgruntled chuckles while I fed him with the dropper. It’s easy to see how guinea pigs became a great favourite of scientists by the late 1960s, which was when they hit their peak in lab-room popularity: they are some of the gentlest and most placid animals you’ll ever meet, they rarely bite, though they can easily draw blood when they do; and they pretty much stay put wherever you set them down unless they spot something nearby to hide under (probably their atavistic reflex of avoiding swoop-downs from hawks). They also cohabit very peacefully, even among males, and they seem to have some kind of well-developed language that they use which reduces physical confrontation. But since the 1980s, guinea pig numbers in labs have dropped dramatically; they’ve been replaced by mice and rats, which have less tricky digestive requirements – e.g. unlike many domestic mammals, guineas can’t produce their own Vitamin C, so they can get scurvy just like us; also, many of their proteins, such as insulin, are genetically very different from both humans and mice. So they really aren’t that useful as experimental subjects after all – unless you want to know more about guinea pigs themselves, and that was never the point of the research anyways.

So the Baytril went down well with the digestive system, but it wasn’t much help in solving the problem. Ten days of force-feeding Baytril-laced blueberry jam all for nothing (I’m so sorry, Pigma 😦 ). The abscess was still there; every day I squeezed out varying quantities of cheesy pus with no sign of improvement, and Pigma kept telling me that it hurt when I squeezed.

In some domestic animals, an option to consider with an abscess that won’t heal is to place a drain in the skin so that the pus can evacuate instead of collecting and festering, though of course, you have to make sure the animal can’t tear it out and chew it up. But that won’t work in guinea pigs because the pus is often caseous (cottage cheese-y) and won’t drain properly.

I figured I had two options left. One, flush the abscess with some kind of disinfectant, hopefully something mild enough to not cause pain or irritate the tissues that help in fighting and healing the infection; or I could inject some penicillin directly into the abscess cavity and hope for the best – that little or none would be absorbed into the bloodstream and sent to the intestines. I figured number two was a less painful option, and as I had tried it once in a cow a few years ago and it worked, I figured the benefits outweighed the risk.

The penicillin itself is mild enough chemically, not painful and irritating to the tissues, so Pigma didn’t object too much to the flushing. But by the next day, I could already tell that enough of it had been absorbed into his bloodstream: for the first time in his life (except for the day we brought him home from the pet store) he refused to eat his favourite vegetables, carrots, broccoli, red pepper and lettuce. Not even parsley would bring him out of his hiding spot.

Therapeutic failure is something I always take personally. I felt bad for Pigma, down on myself for making the wrong decision, and sorry for letting my son down. Of all our animals, he’s especially attached to Pigma, who was his choice of present two years ago on his 9th birthday. I had breezily assured him back in November that Pigma’s castration would be no problem at all. Even though it had been at least two months, it was pretty obvious from the location of the abscess that the surgery was the source of the infection.

Pigma was off his food for four long days; every day at noon I cleaned out his rear end: instead of making his normal firm, tidy, thin-nuggets, he was producing a smelly mass of unfamiliar fecal matter that he couldn’t even evacuate by himself. I didn’t do this first thing in the morning, because guinea pigs, like rabbits, eat their own stool during the night: their hindgut bacteria produce vitamin B and other vitamins and nutrients that they then have to re-ingest so that it can be absorbed in the first part of the intestine. I didn’t want to interfere with that process in addition to the damage I’d already done…

But on the fourth day, Pigma quietly accepted a few celery leaves, then some spinach, and some choice pieces of red pepper. Slowly, to my relief, his appetite was returning to normal; and best of all, the abscess had suddenly started to heal properly. The penicillin had done its job, in spite of the collateral damage. I hadn’t wiped out the entire ecosystem after all.

I keep checking him to see if the abscess is coming back, but it’s been several days and no sign of the smallest bump. I probably won’t send him back outside until spring though.

In the interest of being a pedant amateur historian, I need to add a few things. First of all, guinea pigs are (of course) not remotely related to pigs. In fact, they are barely even rodents, though I see they’re still hanging off a branch that’s loosely attached to that order of mammals, along with fellow New World creatures like the capybara and the lovely mara.
mara_in_captivity1

They are usually called “cavies” by people who really know and love them well. They do not come from Guinea either; I imagine the confusion first arose when they were introduced to England in the late 1500s, during the first brutal takeover of the Americas. Introduced to England by the Dutch, the ladies in the court of Queen Elizabeth I thought they were adorable and carried them around on silk pillows. Cavies could be bought for a guinea in later centuries, and many people came to believe they were originally from Guinea (Africa) – due to the triangular slave and goods trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.

Thinking about guinea pigs and their history, intertwined with the human history of enslavement, despoilation and elimination of peoples and ecosystems, awakens in me the usual pangs of guilt and sadness for what could have been, instead of what we know has happened. Guinea pigs themselves are a byword for cruel and invasive expermentation on defenceless bodies that are utterly unequipped to resist. Some of that experimentation and despoiling may have been blind and unintentional, or with a (misguided) intent to serve a greater good. Much of it though, was and is still based on greed, short-sightedness and a rapacious desire for temporary and ill-defined success. I wish we could learn better from history, but it doesn’t look like we’re all trying to learn the same lessons.